ALTOONA, Pa. – Will Craig has been a solid professional hitter so far in his career. Honestly though, it really hasn’t been good enough up to this point. The former first round pick in the 2016 MLB Draft doesn’t have any trouble making contact or hitting the ball; however, for the Pirates to find value in the corner infielder, there is no doubt that Craig needs to add power to his game.
Fortunately, early results in 2018 may show that Craig has tapped in to that much needed power.
In 123 games and 542 at-bats last season, Will Craig had only hit six homers. Through his first five Double-A games, he has hit three home runs, including an inside-the-park home run off of the top of the center field wall on Tuesday night in Altoona. Hit to the deepest part of the ballpark (405′), the ball hit off of the top of the wall, bounced away from the center fielder, and Craig hustled hard around the bases.
“Never,” Craig responded when asked the last time he hit an inside-the-park homer. “Maybe when I was kid, but I don’t remember, honestly. Maybe when there were like three errors or something. That was crazy for me.”
With the Curve down 2-1 in the bottom of the seventh and two runners on base, Craig said that he thought he got all of the pitch, and it was probably leaving the park. Luckily, he didn’t watch the hit to straightaway center; rather, he hustled immediately out of the box.
“I never really pimped home runs or anything like that,” Craig said. “For that instance, I thought I got all of it. I thought it was going out. Regardless, you never know, so I always run as hard as I can out of the box. I had one instance in college where I kind of did pimp a home run, and it only got out by like a foot. I don’t want to be that guy who’s on SportsCenter who pimps a home run, then it gets caught at the warning track. I won’t be that guy.”
The inside-the-park home run exemplified two essential pieces of Craig’s 2018 campaign – the addition of power and better conditioning.
Craig came into camp this season about 15 pounds less than last year. A newlywed this past December, he put a focus on diet and exercise in the off-season after moving to Nashville, where he got a trainer through his agency.
“His main focus with me was to get my body to not only be stronger but to last longer,” Craig said. “It starts with eating healthy and laying off all of the junk food.”
Now, his focus is not necessarily power lifting in the gym, but he is stretching a lot more with the hope of staying loose and ready for a long season. After a strong start last year, including a .354 average and a .972 OPS month of June, Craig dropped off dramatically in August, only hitting .205 with a .533 OPS for the Marauders.
“I started completely from scratch this off-season,” Craig said. “That last month wasn’t very good. When you go to Florida in the heat, you sweat so much, and it affected me. The big thing for me this year is eating healthy and being prepared for the long haul.”
Coming into this season healthier and in better shape than year’s prior, the biggest thing that Craig needed to do to have value moving forward was to add power to his game. He admitted to being caught up in striving to have a high batting average and trying not to strike out much last season. It was sort of an internal battle between getting on base often and producing more in the power category.
“I keep battling that with myself,” Craig said. “Obviously, I want to hit .300, where a lot of people set a goal for. The way the game is going now, though, average is dropping a little, and there are more strikeouts, but power numbers are going up. That really wasn’t my game in college; it’s easier to hit for average than power. But, you usually have to sacrifice one for the other. Last year, it was power.”
He went on the say that if he has to sacrifice 10-15 points of batting average for better power numbers this season, he will. He also wants to improve upon situational hitting and hit better with runners in scoring position.
“For me, it’s not just home runs but RBIs,” said Craig. “Increasing average isn’t my goal right now. Increasing power and RBIs are my number one goal.”
Curve manager Michael Ryan said that Craig has made adjustments to his sight lines while batting, reducing the number of ground balls and working to elevate a little more.
“His sights have changed, and now he wants to some stuff elevated,” Ryan said. “His swing path is more suited to hit those baseballs.”
It’s not like the power isn’t there. Ryan said that he has shown off that power in batting practice and just needs to continue to translate it into game situations. Early this season, Craig has been able to do damage on off-speed pitches, like the slider that he was able to drive to the center field wall on Tuesday.
He has also made a slight adjustment to his batting stance, staying in his legs a little longer through his swing. He will still stand tall leading up to the pitch, but he has focused on getting into somewhat of a crouch position as the pitch comes in to be able to generate more leverage from the ground through his legs.
Lastly, Craig is focused on not letting failure affect him for longer than one at-bat this season.
“It’s not like I’m accepting striking out,” Craig said. “I’m just not trying to let it affect my next at-bat, more or less. Last year, I’d strike out my first at-bat, and I would still be thinking about it in my second or third at-bat. Now, I’m putting it behind me and getting rid of it, trying to get as much out of every at-bat.”
Two hard contacts every game – no matter fly ball, ground ball, or line drive – is the goal for each game. That came about after an early season conversation with Cole Tucker, who encouraged Craig to focus on things that he can control.
“Obviously, I’d prefer to hit line drives rather than ground balls; I’m not going to beat out many ground balls,” Craig chuckled. “I just want to make as much solid contact as possible.”
He might not be able to beat out many ground balls, but he can get around the bases in about 16 seconds or so if the opportunity arises again (according to his inside-the-parker). I think Craig would prefer the method of his previous two games, though, just launching the baseball into the bleachers. There is still a lot of season in front of us, but early results are good for the Curve first baseman and former first rounder.